Saturday, November 14, 2015

Wolf vote fallout: Reactions to the move to delist in Oregon

By Steve Tool
Wallowa County Chieftain
In a 4-2 vote on Nov. 9 in Salem, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission removed gray wolves from the species receiving protections under the Oregon Endangered Species Act. 
Commission also seeks option to keep wolves listed in western part of state and increase in penalties for illegal kills.

In a blow to conservationists, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 to delist the gray wolf from Oregon’s Endangered Species Act on Nov. 9 in Salem. The emotional 11-hour meeting included testimony from 106 people who were allowed three minutes each to speak. Although the vote removed all of Oregon’s wolves from the state’s ESA list, wolves on the west side of the state are still protected by the federal ESA.

The commission is the policy-creating entity for fish and wildlife issues for the state through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is composed of seven appointed members: One from each of the state’s five congressional districts, plus one each from the east and west sides of the Cascade Mountain Range. On Oct. 29, the ODFW recommended that the commission delist wolves based on five criteria detailed in the state’s ESA:

• Wolves are represented over a large geographic area of Oregon, are connected to other populations, and nothing is preventing them from occupying additional portions of Oregon.
• The population is projected to continue to increase. The overall probability of extinction is very low and genetic variation is high.
• Wolf habitat in Oregon is stable and wolf range is expanding.
• Over-utilization of wolves is unlikely as the wolf plan continues to provide protections for wolves, and any removal of wolves in the future is regulated by the commission.
• The wolf plan ensures protection of wolves in the future, regardless of ESA status.

Commissioners Greg Wolley and Laura Anderson voted against the majority. Wolley didn’t think wolf numbers supported delisting, while Anderson supported delisting only in the eastern part of the state and voted against the motion because the state’s current ESA only allows delisting of the wolf across the entire state.

As part of its decision, the commission recommended changing the ESA to allow for partial delisting, and because of fears that the delisting might be seen as “open season” on wolves, recommended increasing the penalties for killing a wolf, which currently stand at a $6,250 fine and one year in jail. Those recommendations must be voted on by the state legislature.

Oregon wolf management is not dictated by the ESA. Rather, it is dictated by the Oregon Wolf Management Plan, which was implemented in 2005 spells out three phases of protection for wolves. The state moved to Phase 2 in January of this year when ODFW biologists recommended the change as their data showed at least four breeding pairs of wolves for three consecutive years in the eastern side of the state.

Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts attended the hearing and said the commission made the right decision. “It was a long day, for sure,” Roberts said. “It was an interesting process, and I think the commission made the right decision in the end. We would have liked it better if the decision was 6-0, but we’ll take it.”

Ramona Phillips, who runs cattle outside of Joseph with her husband Charley, expressed cautious optimism about the vote. “I feel like it’s a tiny step forward,” Phillips said. “It’s really not going to change a whole lot for right now, but it gives us a step in the process in the next couple of years to get where we want to be. My concern is that there will be a lawsuit to undo it.”

Wallowa County resident Holly Akenson serves on the commission and voted to delist the gray wolf. She said most of the people who testified at the meeting were against delisting, and that written testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping wolves on the ESA list. “I voted the way I did because we were asked if the wolf population met the five criteria (for delisting), so the decision was based on information, whether it was time or wasn’t time to delist. It was a biological decision, yes or no, regardless of how you feel about wolves in Oregon,” Akenson said.

Arran Robertson, a communication associate for Oregon Wild, said the organization was disappointed with the decision. “We think the delisting decision is premature,” Robertson said. “There’s some question about the process. Specifically, what the state is calling a ‘scientific review.’ We don’t think it was rigorous and it discounted a majority of the scientific criticisms and feedback they got for the justification they used for delisting.”

Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, voiced similar concerns. “The decision was deeply disheartening for us,” Weiss said. “Our sense is that the step Oregon took in delisting is not representative of how most Oregonians feel about endangered species. I know the commission said they care about wolves, but I think if they cared about wolves they’d have followed science and followed the law. In this case, it’s pretty clear they didn’t do either.”

The commission filed the ruling with the Secretary of State on Nov. 10. While the ruling removes wolves from the state ESA it has no other effect on wolf management for the present. The state’s wolf plan is up for review next year. It was last revised in 2010.